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Archive for the ‘BITCH DRAMA’ Category

Dead Ringer

20 Nov

Dead Ringer – – directed by Paul Henreid. Murder Melodrama. Twin sisters have at one another in an impersonation slay-fest. 118 minutes Black and White 1964.
★★
The Bette Davis’ pictures still worth seeing all have a good story, a good cinemaphotographer, a good cast, a good director, and a part she was meant to play. They would include All About Eve, The Little Foxes, In This Our Life, and The Letter. But even when the entire crew is on board, Bette Davis can still steer the vessel in direction it was never intended to go. This she does here.

In the case of Dead Ringer, she also does not have a good director.

In a movie the key ingredient is the story, and the director’s job is to tell the story, and just as Faulkner does not tell a story the same way as Erskine Caldwell does, John Huston does not tell a story the same way as George Stevens does, for each director has a way of releasing the material to the eye that is a force in itself, a style in itself, a value in itself. The job also is to bring out what is best and right in the actor. In the case of Dead Ringer, Davis has her old friend Paul Henreid, but he is not a director of merit in these matters.

So you will see, for instance, that the power and influence of the great Doheny Mansion is never used as a narrative character. Its interiors are simply filmed well, but they never tell a story, because the director does not have a narrative imagination, and this exhausts the audience. Nor does he have the ability to bring out what is best and right in the actor.

The great Ernest Haller films her (as he had many times before) one final time before he died, and the movie even has a fine score by André Previn. It has the great Jean Hagen (her last film), Estelle Winwood, and George Macready. It has Karl Malden as a love interest, and an exquisite performance by Cyril Delevanti as the butler. But Davis is allowed to perform these sisters in a way that discourages her best work with them, and that is because of her makeup.

She uses star-persona makeup for both characters and in all situations. To youthen herself (she’s 56), she masks both faces almost in clown white, the neck a quite different tone. She uses heavy false eyelashes for both sisters, with too much upper lid mascara, curling the corners with it, so that, when her eyes are fully open, she is a Cupie Doll. Her mouth is painted a down-turned bow in a rictus of contempt and distaste. The corners extend slightly and the dip in the middle of the upper lip is painted over to make the arc of the bow unbroken — a mouth meant to emit arrows of vitriol — a demolition mouth. None of this makeup has anything to do with either character. It has only to do with the star who is playing either character. The result is that she very much resembles Joan Crawford and never resembles either character one bit.

So, whether she can actually play either character we never really know. She can wear different hairdos and costumes, but that’s it. There she stands, a tiny woman barely over five feet tall, Niagara Falls in a teacup. And from All About Eve on, this makeup is what she called acting. It is touching because it is so lost.

A star is someone who, once called that, is never able to act again?

 

In This Our Life

18 Nov

In This Our Life –– directed by John Huston. Drama. A young Southern woman runs over the lives and loves of everyone in town. 97 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★★

I saw it when it came out and remember it well –– because of its closing scene in which Bette tells off Charles Coburn and then drives her convertible over a cliff. The scene was actually directed by Raoul Walsh, but what was impressive about it was the intensity and rashness of Davis’s ability to tell the truth. The question is not whether she is mean, selfish, immoral, or even sociopathic, but her daring to find in her guts and let loose the emotional truth. I never forgot it, and neither did anyone else who saw it. It was what I could not do at the time, nor for years to come. There was no major film star of Bette Davis’ era who was not a full embodiment of Women’s Liberation. This was Davis’ version.

Davis deplored the picture, which is incorrect, for she chews scenery already there for her digestion. She is never bigger than the part. And she is certainly never smaller than the part. Her costumes, by Orry-Kelly, are superb in their careful want of subtlety: she is always tricked out for game. Perc Westmore executed the makeup, which gives her a bee-stung upper lip and mascara flounces at the outside corners of her eyes. Her hair is free curling just above the shoulder with a disgraceful bang on her brow.

Bette Davis is the most kinetic of all major female stars. Her body is always engaged or about to spring. More than any other actress of her time, she brings to the screen the quality of someone no one has ever loved, and this gives her sexual seething. One way or another she is hot.

This picture is made in her heyday, between The Man Who Came To Dinner, which is her best screen performance, and Now Voyager, which is one of her most iconic. Once again she plays the brat. She had played it for years. And she played it successfully until All About Eve, after which she played it unsuccessfully, because, once over forty, it became barbaric, immature, and neurotic. After Eve, Bette Davis ceased to be an actress and became a persona, which is to say she became a statue in a public park forty years premature to her death.

But here she is giving vent to what all of us, males and females, only wish we could give vent to –– the suppressed life we’ve had to sit on, now released, fuelled, nasty or not, with the rage of our resentment at having had to sit on it so long.

This is John Huston’s second picture, and it is very well told. Ernest Haller who filmed Gone With The Wind makes beautiful light arrangements, and Ed Koch who will write Casablanca does a sound and economical script, particularly since the Pulitzer Prize- winning novel by Ellen Glasgow it comes from hinges on the Davis character’s attempt to incriminate a negro boy for a crime she herself committed. In a memorable jailhouse scene, Davis attempts to cajole and manipulate this boy to confess to it – a scene she plays well, as does the boy. Davis had found the actor, Ernest Anderson, as a waiter in the Warner’s commissary, saw his quality, and got Huston to use him; Anderson went on to have a long acting career. The handling of the negro truth has a moving first-time ever quality that rings true still.

His mother is played by Hattie McDaniel, and it is interesting to see her well-matched in a key scene opposite Olivia de Havilland. Both women were up for supporting Oscars for Gone With The Wind, and when McDaniel won it, de Havilland fled to the ladies’ room in a weeping rage. A friend shook her and said to her that McDaniel would never have another chance to win an Oscar and that de Havilland would, and it brought her to her senses. And here the two women are, face to face, filmed by Ernest Haller once again, while a score by that same Max Steiner strums by.

Olivia de Havilland gives a subtle, strong reading of Davis’ sister. Never in competition with Davis, because her instrument is essentially lyrical, the small telling registrations of her face bring this good woman to life fully. She’s wonderful to watch. She presents a formidable antagonist to Davis. It is one of de Havilland’s most fully realized characterizations.

But it is Davis’s film. Her leading men, Dennis Morgan and the penguin actor George Brent form part of a strong supporting cast which includes Lee Patrick as the care-free friend, and Frank Craven and Billie Burke as the parents. But it is Davis’ scenes with Charles Coburn that are exemplary of Davis acting at her best. Davis had more brass than a doorknocker and she and Coburn come alive to one another whenever they are together, because Coburn has brass too. Their incest scene on the couch is one for the books.

Bette Davis played The Brat for years: Jezebel, Of Human Bondage, The Letter, Dark Victory, Mr. Skeffingon, Elizabeth And Essex, The Little Foxes, and this is her quintessential take on it, and not to be missed. The title comes from the last line of a poem of George Meredith from Modern Love, a book inspired by his wife’s running off with another man. In In This Our Life, Bette runs off with another man. She also runs off with the picture.

 

Red-Headed Woman

09 Feb

Red-Headed Woman — directed by Jack Conway. A gold-digging vamp seduces her way to the top. 79 minutes Black and White 1932.

★★★★

This is Harlow’s tenth principal role, and by this time she sure knows a thing or two, and one of the things she knows is Don’t Hold Back One Inch. She plays this fiery tart without a blush of shame, and it’s a treat to see. Harlow is in her early twenties here, and her hair is not the platinum blond it was to more or less remain. She is being thrust forward by MGM as a sex symbol, which annoyed her and baffled her, as it did Marilyn Monroe later on. Both women realized it was quite unreal and unnatural, that nobody was really like that. Several things militate against our respecting Harlow, but being a sex bomb was not one of them. In fact, aside from apparently wearing no undergarments, she is neither sexy nor pretty. Her face is boxy and her lips are puckered with rouge; her nose is from some other face; her voice is completely untrained, grating, and badly placed. As to her being sexy, well, that may have been so at the time to those who were of her own generation and were in their twenties when she was, and saw her first in Wings, where she is quite remarkable and quite unlike her later incarnations. One has to set these things aside to notice her range and how robust an actor she could be. She drives this uncompromising story forward like a steam engine, plowing every cow off the tracks before her. As an actress, she never asks permission. Gentlemen prefer redheads is what she says and she acts on it roundly. Chester Morris is the stolid mid-western millionaire she finagles into marriage, and bounds on from to score all the money in the world. In fact, if there could be such a thing, she is a female bounder. Una Merkel plays her lemony sidekick, and the great Charles Boyer in an early film appearance, plays the chauffeur who becomes her tidbit. The movie is pre-code, and delightfully impenitent as such. Lewis Stone is the first of many fathers-in-law. Henry Stephenson is one of her willing victims – later to be remembered as the speech therapist around whom Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor dance in the “Moses Supposes His Toeses are Roses” number in Singing In The Rain. Liela Hyams plays Morris’s wife in a lovely and giving performance. May Robson plays the society dame who warns her son too late. Paul Bern one of Harlow’s husbands produced it. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the first screenplay and Anita Loos the last. The film caused a scandal in America, and Britain refused to show it. It was a huge financial success for MGM.

 

 

Surrender, Dorothy

01 Nov

Surrender, Dorothy – Directed by Charles McDougall. Drama.  The mother of a deceased girl moves in with her daughter’s roommates. 87 minutes Color 2006.

* * * * *

Well, an actress has to work, and when a highly professional big star like Diane Keaton is given full rein in a 20-day, low budget TV drama, watch out. This part should have been played by a Jewish actress whose grieving style might make this story swallowable. But Keaton, an actress of genius, has, without rehearsal, the liberty to quirk things up, and it is her only recourse, since she is miscast. Or that she refuses to play anything except for comedy. The direction, since there was no time for rehearsal, makes one suppose the director is a dullard, which apparently he is as he is involved in, count them, two commentaries, one side by side with Keaton, who has the decency to say little, although she does give some interesting cues as to her method – and the other with one of the greatest cinema-photographers in the world, Vlamos Zsigmund, who shot this picture. Anyone interested in how films are shot must dwell upon this interview. Because of the strength of his Hungarian accent he is often difficult to understand, but don’t let that stand in your way. Don’t let Keaton’s costuming stand in your way either. She descends on the summer cottage which her just-dead daughter has rented with friends, and, to the horror of those friends, she moves in and proceeds to put on her daughter’s clothes. But are they her daughter’s clothes? The wee bowler hat lets me know they are rather the costumer’s foolish submission to the Keaton sartorial style — the clothes the movie star Keaton would look, at the age of 60, cute in., and so the force and grotesqueness of the impersonation is lost. All the scenes are beautifully shot and badly directed. The other actors are reduced to their default routines, and Keaton overacts. And what we are left with is a new mode of drama invented here for the first time: Cute Tragedy. But, if you can’t stomach the picture, check out the commentaries.

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Malice In Wonderland

14 Jun

Malice in Wonderland —  Directed by Gus Trinkonis. Drama. The story of Hedda Hopper, Hollywood  actress and gossip columnist crushing all before her, including Louella Parsons, Color 1985

Too bad. Jane Alexander is quite fine, and she has the far better part. But then Our Liz had to take the part of the older woman because that’s what she was, for  Parsons took 20 years off her age, poor thing. The script is rotten and Richard Dysart is bafflingly bad. It’s fun to behold Elizabeth Taylor, quite beautiful at 52, in her own jewelry. But her performance is forced, partly because the director is a ninny and partly because the script is TV generic junk. But also because something went wrong with her as an actress when she was over 30. Or she chose parts of harridans and harpies, which her particular actor’s instrument was not designed to play with any finesse or fun. The greatest romantic actress of her era as a shrew? Nope. Of course it’s always interesting to see this great beauty as a beauty, just as it’s interesting to see the Grand Canyon from different angles. Both World Treasures.

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